And now we come to one of the most illuminating figures in modern history, the figure of an adventurer and a wrecker, whose story seems to display with an extraordinary vividness the universal subtle conflict of egotism, vanity, and personality with the weaker, wider claims of the common good. Against this background of confusion and stress, and hope, this strained and heaving France and Europe, this stormy and tremendous dawn, appears this dark little archaic personage, hard, compact, capable, unscrupulous, imitative, and neatly vulgar. He was born (1769) in the still half-barbaric island of Corsica, the son of a rather prosaic father, a lawyer who had been first a patriotic Corsican against the French monarchy which was trying to subjugate Corsica, and who had then gone over to the side of the invader. His mother was of sturdier stuff, passionately patriotic and a strong and managing woman. (She birched her sons; on one occasion she birched Napoleon when he was sixteen.) There were numerous brothers and sisters, and the family pursued the French authorities with importunities for rewards and jobs. Except for Napoleon it seems to have been a thoroughly commonplace, «hungry» family. He was clever, bad-tempered, and overbearing. From his mother he had acquired a romantic Corsican patriotism.
Through the patronage of the French governor of Corsica he got an education first at the military school of Brienne and at then the military school of Paris, from which he passed into the artillery in 1785. He was an industrious student both of mathematics and history, his memory was prodigiously good, and he made copious notebooks, which still exist. These note- books show no very exceptional intelligence, and they contain short pieces of original composition upon suicide and similar adolescent topics. He fell, early under the spell of Rousseau; he developed sensibility and a scorn for the corruptions of civilization. In 1786 he wrote a pamphlet against a Swiss pastor who had attacked Rousseau. It was a very ordinary adolescent production, rhetorical and imitative. He dreamt of an independent Corsica, freed from the French. With the revolution, he became an ardent republican and a supporter of the new French regime in Corsica. For some years, until the fall of Robespierre, he remained a Jacobin.
He soon gained the reputation of a useful and capable officer, and it was through Robespierre’s younger brother that he got his first chance of distinction at Toulon. Toulon had been handed over to the British and Spanish by the Royalists, and a tallied fleet occupied its harbor. Bonaparte was given the command of the artillery, and under his direction the French forced the allies to abandon the port and town.
He was next appointed commander of the artillery in Italy; but he had not taken up his duties, when the death of Robespierre seemed likely to involve his own; he was put under arrest as a Jacobin, and for a time he was in danger of the guillotine. That danger passed. He was employed as artillery commander in an abortive raid upon Corsica, and then went to Paris (1795) rather down at heel. Madame Junot in her Memoirs describes his lean face and slovenly appearance at this time, «his ill-combed, ill-powdered hair hanging down over his gray overcoat», his gloveless hands and badly blacked boots. It was a time of exhaustion and reaction after the severities of the Jacobite republic. «In Paris», says Holland Rose, «the star of liberty was paling before Mercury, Mars, and Venus» finance, uniforms, and social charm the best of the common men were in the armies, away beyond the frontiers. We have already noted the last rising of the royalists in this year (1795). Napoleon had the luck to be in Paris, and found his second opportunity in this affair. He saved the Republic of the Directory.
His abilities greatly impressed Carnot, the most upright of the Directors. Moreover, he married a charming young widow, Madame Josephine de Beauharnais, who had great influence with Barras. Both these things probably helped him to secure the command in Italy.
We have no space here for the story of his brilliant campaigns in Italy (1796–97) but of the spirit in which that invasion of Italy was conducted we must say a word or two, because it illustrates so vividly the double soul of France and of Napoleon, and bow revolutionary idealism was paling before practical urgencies. He proclaimed to the Italians that the French were coming to break their chains and they were! He wrote to the Directory: «We will levy 20,000,000 francs in exactions in this country; it is one of the richest in the world». To his soldiers he said, «You are famished and nearly naked … I lead you into the most fertile plain in the world. There you will find great towns, rich provinces, honor, glory, riches…»
We are all such mixed stuff as this; in all of us the intimations of a new world and a finer duty struggle to veil and control the ancient greeds and lusts of our inherited past; but these passages, written by a young man of twenty-seven, seem to show the gilt of honorable idealism rubbed off at an unusually early age. These are the bribes of an adventurer who has brought whatever impulse of devotion to a great cause once stirred within him well under the control of his self-love.
His successes in Italy were brilliant and complete; they enormously stimulated his self-confidence and his contempt for the energy and ability of his fellow creatures. He had wanted to go into Italy because there lay the most attractive task he had risked his position in the army by refusing to take up the irksome duties of a command against the rebels in La Vendée and there are clear signs of a vast expansion of his vanity with his victories. He had been a great reader of Plutarch’s lives and of Roman history, and his extremely active but totally uncreative imagination was now busy with dreams of a revival of the eastern conquests of the Roman Empire. He got the republic of Venice out of his way by cutting it up between the French and Austria, securing the Ionian Islands and the Venetian fleet for France. This peace, the peace of Campo Formio, was for both sides a thoroughly scoundrelly and ultimately a disastrous bargain. The new republic of France assisted in the murder of an ancient republic Napoleon carried his point against a considerable outcry in France and Austria got Venetia, in which land in 1918 she was destined to bleed to death. There were also secret clauses by which both France and Austria were later to acquire south German territory. And it was not only the Roman push eastward that was now exciting Napoleon’s brain. This was the land of Caesar and Caesar was a bad example for the successful general of a not very stable republic.
Caesar had come back to Rome from Gaul a hero and conqueror. His new imitator would come back from Egypt and India-Egypt and India were to be his Gaul. There was really none of the genius about which historians write so glibly in this decision. It was a tawdry and ill-conceived imitation. The elements of failure stared him in the face. The way to Egypt and India was by sea, and the British, in spite of two recent naval mutinies, whose importance Napoleon exaggerated, were stronger than the French at sea. Moreover, Egypt was a part of the Turkish Empire, by no means a contemptible power in those days. Nevertheless he persuaded the Directory, which was dazzled by his Italian exploits, to let him go. An Armada started from Toulon in May 1798, captured Malta, and had the good luck to evade the British fleet and arrive at Alexandria. He landed his troops hurriedly, and the battle of the Pyramids made him master of Egypt.
The main British fleet at that time was in the Atlantic outside Cadiz, but the admiral had detached a force of his best ships, under Vice-Admiral Nelson as great a genius in naval affairs as was Napoleon in things military to chase and engage the French flotilla. For a time Nelson sought the French fleet in vain; finally, on the evening of the first of August, he found it at anchor in Aboukir bay. He had caught it unawares; many of the men were ashore and a council was being held, in the flagship. He had no charts, and it was a hazardous thing to sail into the shallow water in a bad light. The French admiral concluded, therefore, that his adversary would not attack before morning, and so made no haste in recalling his men aboard until it was too late to do so. Nelson, however, struck at once against the advice of some of his captains. One ship only went aground. She marked the shoal for the rest of the fleet. He sailed to the attack in a double line about sundown, putting the French between two fires. Night fell as the battle was joined; the fight thundered and crashed in the darkness, until it was lit presently by the flames of burning French ships, and then by the flare of the French flag-ship, the Orient, blowing up … Before midnight the battle of the Nile was over, and Napoleon’s fleet was destroyed. Napoleon was cut off from France.
Says Holland Rose, quoting theirs this Egyptian expedition was «the rashest attempt history records». Napoleon was left in Egypt with the Turks gathering against him and his army infected with the plague. Nevertheless, with a stupid sort of persistence, he went on for a time with this Eastern scheme. He gained a victory at Jaffa, and, being short of provisions, massacred ail his prisoners , Then he tried to take Acre, where his own siege artillery, just captured at sea by the English, was used against him. Returning baffled to Egypt, he gained a brilliant victory over a Turkish force at Aboukir, and then, deserting the army of Egypt it held on until 1801, when it capitulated to a British force made his escape back to France (1799), narrowly missing capture by a British cruiser off Sicily.
Here was muddle and failure enough to discredit any general had it been known. But the very British cruisers, which came so near to catching him, helped him by preventing any real understanding of the Egyptian situation from reaching the French people. He could make a great flourish over the battle of Aboukir and conceal the shame and loss of Acre. Things were not going well with France just then. There had been military failures at several points; much of Italy had been lost, Bonaparte’s Italy, and this turned men’s minds to him as the natural savior of that situation; moreover, there had been much speculation, and some of it was coming to light; France was in one of her phases of financial scandal, and Napoleon had not filched; the public was in that state of moral fatigue when a strong and honest man is called for, a wonderful, impossible healing man who will do everything for everybody. People, poor lazy souls, persuaded themselves that this specious young man with the bard face, so providentially back from Egypt, was the strong and honest man required another Washington.
With Julius Caesar rather than Washington at the back of his mind, Napoleon responded to the demands of his time. A conspiracy was carefully engineered to replace, the Directory by three «Consuls» everybody seems to have been, reading far too much Roman history just then of whom Napoleon was to be the chief the working, of that conspiracy is too, intricate a story for our space; it involved a, Cromwell like dispersal of the Lower House (the Council of Five Hundred), and in this affair Napoleon lost his nerve.
The deputies shouted at him and hustled him, and he seems to have been very much frightened. He nearly fainted, stuttered, and could say nothing, but the situation was saved by his brother Lucien, who brought in the soldiers and dispersed the council. This little hitch did not affect the final success of the scheme. The three Consuls were installed at the Luxembourg palace, with two commissioners, to reconstruct the constitution.
With all his confidence restored and sure of the support of the people, who supposed him to be honest, patriotic, republican, and able to bring about a good peace, Napoleon took a high hand, with his colleagues and the commissioners. A constitution was produced in which the chief executive officer was to be called the First Consul, with enormous powers. He was to be Napoleon; this was part of the constitution. He was to be, re-elected or replaced at the end, of ten years. He was to be assisted by a Council of State, appointed by himself, which was to initiate legislation and send its proposals to two bodies, the Legislative Body (which could vote, but not discuss) and the Tribunate (which could discuss, but not vote) which were selected by an appointed Senate from a special class, the «notabilities of France», who were elected by the notabilities of the departments», who were elected by the «notabilities of the commune», who were elected by the common voters. The suffrage for the election of the notabilities of the commune was universal. This was the sole vestige of democracy in the astounding pyramid. This constitution was chiefly the joint production of a worthy philosopher, Sieyès, who was one of the three consuls, and Bonaparte. But so weary was France with her troubles and efforts, and so confident were men in the virtue and ability of this adventurer from Corsica, that when, at the birth of the nineteenth century, this constitution was submitted to the country, it was carried by 3,011,007, votes to 1,562, France put herself absolutely in Bonaparte’s hands and prepared to be peaceful, happy, and glorious.
Now surely here was opportunity such as never came to man before. Here was a position in which a man might well bow himself in fear of himself, and search his heart and serve God and man to the utmost. The old order of things was dead or dying; strange new forces drove through the world seeking form and direction; the promise of a world republic and an enduring world peace whispered in a multitude of startled minds. Had this man any profundity of vision, any power of creative imagination, had he been accessible to any disinterested ambition, he might have done work for mankind that would have made him the very sun of history. All Europe and America, stirred by the first promise of a new age, was waiting for him. Not France alone. France was in his hand, his instrument, to do with as he pleased, willing for peace, but tempered for war like an exquisite sword. There lacked nothing to this great occasion but a noble imagination. And failing that, Napoleon could do no more than strut upon the crest of this great mountain of opportunity like a cockerel on a dunghill. The figure he makes in history is one of almost incredible self-conceit, of vanity, greed, and cunning, of callous contempt and disregard of all who trusted him, and of a grandiose aping of Caesar, Alexander, and Charlemagne, which would be purely comic if it were not caked over with human blood. Until, as Victor Hugo said in his tremendous way, «God was bored by him», and he, was kicked aside into a corner to end his days, explaining and explaining how very clever his worst blunders had been, prowling about his dismal hot island shooting birds and squabbling meanly with an underbred gaoler who failed to show him proper «respect».
His career as First Consul was perhaps the least dishonorable phase in his career. He took the crumbling military affairs of the Directory in hand, and after a complicated campaign in North Italy brought matters to a head in the victory of Marengo, near Alessandria (1800). It was a victory that at some moments came very near disaster. In the December of the same year General Moreau, in the midst of snow, mud, and altogether abominable weather, inflicted an overwhelming defeat upon the Austrian army at Hohenlinden. If Napoleon had gained this battle, it would have counted among his most characteristic and brilliant exploits. These things made the hoped for peace possible. In 1801 the preliminaries of peace with England and Austria were signed. Peace with England, the Treaty of Amiens, was concluded in 1802, and Napoleon was free to give himself to the creative statecraft of which France, and Europe through France, stood in need. The war had given the country extended boundaries; the treaty with England restored the colonial empire of France and left her in a position of security beyond the utmost dreams of Louis XIV. It was open to Napoleon to work out and consolidate the new order of things to make a modern state that should become a beacon and inspiration to Europe and all the world.
He attempted nothing of the sort. He did not realize that there were such things as modern states in the scheme of possibility. His little imitative imagination was full of deep cunning dream of being Caesar over again as if this universe would ever tolerate anything of that sort over again! He was scheming to make himself a real emperor, with a crown upon his head and all his rivals and school fellows and friends, at his feet. This could give him no fresh power that he did not already exercise, but it would be more splendid it would, astonish his mother. What response was there in a head of that sort for the splendid creative challenge of the time? But first France must, be prosperous. France hungry would certainly not endure an emperor. He set himself to carry out an old scheme of roads that Louis XV had approved; he developed canals in imitation of’ the English canals; he reorganized the police and made the country safe; and, preparing the scene for his personal drama, He set himself to make Paris look like Rome, with classical schemes for banking development were available, and, he made use of them. In all these things he moved with the times, they would have happened with less autocracy, with less centralization, if he had never been born. And he set himself to weaken the republicans whose fundamental convictions he was planning to outrage. He recalled the émigrés, provided they gave satisfactory assurances to réspect the new regime. Many were very willing to come back on such terms, and let Bourbons be bygones. And he worked out a great reconciliation, a Concordat, with Rome. Mine was to support him, and he was to restore the authority of Rome in the parishes. France would never be obedient and manageable, he thought; she would never stand a new monarchy, without religion. «How can you have order in a state», he said, «without religion? Society cannot exist without inequality, of fortunes, which cannot endure apart from religion. When one man is dying of hunger near another who is ill of surfeit, he cannot resign himself to this difference, unless there is an authority which declares ‘God wills it thus: there must be poor and rich in the world: but hereafter and during all eternity, the division of things will, take place differently.’» Religion especially of the later Roman brand was, he thought, excellent stuff for keeping the common people quiet. In his early Jacobin days he had denounced it for that very reason.
Another great achievement, which marks his imaginative scope and his estimate of human nature, was the institution of the Legion of Honor, a scheme for decorating Frenchmen with bits of ribbon, which was admirably calculated to divert ambitious men from subversive proceedings.
And also Napoleon interested himself in Christian propaganda. Here is the Napoleonic view of the political uses of Christ, a view that has tainted all French missions from that time forth. «It is my wish to re-establish the institution, for foreign missions; for the religious, missionaries may be very useful to me in Asia, Africa, and America, as I shall make them reconnoiter all; the lands they visit. The sanctity of their dress will not only protect, them but also serve to conceal their political and commercial investigations. The head of the missionary establishment shall reside no longer at Rome but in Paris».
These are the ideas of a roguish merchant rather than a statesman. His treatment of education shows the same narrow vision, the same blindness to the realities of the dawn about him. Elementary education he neglected almost completely; he left it to the conscience of the local authorities, and he provided that, the teachers should be paid out of the fees of the scholars; it is clear he did not want the common people to be educated; he had no glimmering of any understanding why they should be; but, he interested himself in the provision of technical and higher schools because his state needed the services of clever, self-seeking well informed men. This was an astounding retrogression from the great scheme, drafted by Condorcet for the Republic: in 1792, for a, complete system of free education for the entire nation. Slowly but steadfastly the project of Condorcet comes true; the great nations of the world are being compelled to bring it nearer and nearer to realization, and the cheap devices of Napoleon pass out of our interest. As for, the education of the mothers and wives of our race, this was the quality of Napoleon’s wisdom: «I do not think that we need trouble ourselves with any plan of instruction for young females, they cannot be better brought up than by their mothers. Public education is not suitable for them, because they are never called upon to act in public. Manners are all in all, to them, and marriage is all they look to».
The First Consul was no kinder to women in the Code Napoleon. A wife, for example, had no control over her own property; she was in her husband’s hands. This code was the work very largely of the Council of State. Napoleon seems rather to have hindered than helped its deliberations. He would invade the session without notice, and favour its members with lengthy and egotistical monologues, frequently quite irrelevant to, the matter in hand. The Council listened with profound respect; it was all the Council could do. He would keep his councilors up to unearthly hours, and betray a simple pride in his superior wakefulness. He recalled these discussions With peculiar satisfaction in his later years, and remarked on one occasion that his glory consisted not in having won forty battles, but in having created the Code Napoleon … So far as it substituted plain statements for inaccessible legal mysteries his Code was a good thing; it gathered together, revised, and made clear a vast disorderly accumulation of laws, old and new. Like all his constructive work, it made for immediate efficiency; it defined things and relations so that men could get to work upon them without further discussion. It was of less immediate practical importance that it frequently defined them wrongly. There was no intellectual power, as distinguished from intellectual energy, behind this codification. It took everything that existed for granted. («Sa Majesté ne croit que ce qui est»). The fundamental ideas of the civilized community and of the terms of human co-operation were in process of reconstruction all about Napoleon and are never perceived it. He accepted a phase of change, and tried to fix it forever. To this day France is cramped by this early nineteenth-century strait-waistcoat into which he clapped her. He fixed the status of women, the status of laborers, the status of the peasant; they all struggle to this day in the net of big hard definitions.
So briskly and forcibly Napoleon set his mind, hard, clear, and narrow, to brace up France. That bracing up was only a part of the large egotistical schemes that dominated him. His imagination was set upon a new Caesarism. In 1802 he got himself made First Consul for life with the power of appointing a successor, and his clear intention of annexing Holland and Italy, in spite of his treaty obligations to keep them separate, made the Peace of Amiens totter crazily from the very beginning. Since his schemes were bound to provoke a war with England, He should, at any cost, have kept quiet until he had brought his navy to superiority over the British navy. He had the control of great resources for shipbuilding, the British government was a weak one, and three or four years would have sufficed to shift that balance. But in spite of his rough experiences in Egypt, he had never mastered the importance of sea power, and he had not the mental steadfastness for a waiting game and long preparation. In 1803 his occupation of Switzerland precipitated a crisis, and war broke out again with England. The weak Addington in England gave place to the greater Pitt. The rest of Napoleon’s story turns upon that war.
During the period of the Consulate, the First Consul was very active in advancing the fortunes of his brothers and sisters. This was quite human, very clannish and Corsican, and it helps us to understand just how he valued his position and the opportunities before him. Few of us can live without an audience and the first audience of our childhood is our family; most of us to the end of our days are swayed by the desire to impress our parents and brothers and sisters. Few «1etters home», of successful men or women display the graces of modesty and self-forgetfulness. Only souls uplifted, as the soul of Jesus of Nazareth was uplifted, can say of all the world, «Behold my mother and my brethren!» A large factor in the making of Napoleon was the desire to amaze, astonish, and subdue the minds of the Bonaparte family, and their neighbors. He promoted his brothers ridiculously for they were the most ordinary of men. The hungry Bonapartes were in luck. Surely all Corsica wag open-mouthed! But one person who knew him well was neither amazed nor subdued. This was his mother. He sent her money to spend and astonish the neighbors; he exhorted her to make a display, to live as became the mother of so marvelous, so world-shaking, a son. But the good lady, who had birched the Man of Destiny at the age of sixteen for grimacing at his grandmother, was neither dazzled nor deceived by him at the age of thirty-two. All France might worship him, but she had no illusions. She put by the money he sent her; she continued her customary economies. «When it is all over», she said, «you will be glad of my savings».
We will not detail the steps by which Napoleon became Emperor. His coronation was the most extraordinary revival of stale history that it is possible to imagine. Caesar was no longer the model; Napoleon was playing now at being Charlemagne. He was crowned emperor, not indeed at Rome, but in the cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris; the Pope (Pins VII) had been brought from Rome to perform the ceremony; and at the climax Napoleon I seized the crown, waved the Pope aside, and. crowned himself. The attentive reader of this Outline will know that a thousand years before this would have had considerable significance; in 1804 it was just a ridiculous scene. In 1806 Napoleon revived another venerable, antiquity, and, following still the footsteps of Charlemagne, crowned himself with the iron crown of Lombardy in the cathedral of Milan. All this mummery was to have a wonderful effect upon the imagination of western Germany, which was to remember that it, too, had been a part of the empire of Charlemagne.
The four daughter republics of France were now to become kingdoms; in 1806 he set up brother Louis in Holland and brother Joseph in Naples. But the story of the subordinate kingdoms he created in Europe, helpful though this free handling of frontiers was towards the subsequent unification of Italy and Germany, is too complex and evanescent for this Outline.
The pact between the new Charlemagne and the new Leo did not hold good for very long. In 1807 he began to bully the Pope, and in 1811 he made him a close prisoner at Fontainebleau. There does not seem to have been much reason in these proceedings. They estranged all Catholic opinion, as his coronation had estranged all liberal opinion. He ceased to stand either for the old or the new. The new he had betrayed; the old be had failed to win. He stood at last for nothing but himself.
There seems to have been as little reason in the foreign policy that now plunged Europe into a fresh cycle of wars. Having quarreled with Great Britain too soon, he (1804) assembled a vast, army at Boulogne for the conquest of England, regardless of the naval situation. He even struck a medal and erected a column at Boulogne to commemorate the triumph of this projected invasion. In some «Napoleonic» fashion the British fleet was to be decoyed away, this army of Boulogne was to be smuggled across the Channel on a flotilla. Of rafts and boats, and London was to be captured before the fleet returned. At the same time his aggressions in south Germany forced Austria and Russia steadily into a coalition with Britain against him. In 1805 two fatal blows wore struck at any hope be may have entertained of ultimate victory, by the British Admirals Calder and Nelson. In July the former inflicted a serious reverse upon the French fleet in the Bay of Biscay; in October the latter destroyed the joint fleets of France and Spain at the battle of Trafalgar. Nelson died splendidly upon the Victory, victorious Thereafter Napoleon was left with Britain in pitiless opposition, unattainable and unconquerable, able to strike here or against him along all the coasts of Europe.
But for a while the moral wound of Trafalgar was hidden from the French mind altogether. They heard merely that «storms have caused us to lose some ships of the line after an imprudent fight». After Calder’s victory he had snatched his army from Boulogne, rushed it across half Europe, and defeated the Austrian and Russian armies at Ulm and Austerlitz. Under these inauspicious circumstances Prussia, came into the war against him, and was utterly defeated and broken at the battle of Jena (1806). Although Austria and Prussia were broken, Russia was still a fighting power, and the next year was devoted, to this unnecessary antagonist of the French, against whom an abler and saner ruler would never have fought at all. We cannot trace in any detail the difficulties of the Polish campaign against Russia; Napoleon was roughly handled at Pultusk, which he announced in Paris as a brilliant victory and again at Eylau. Then the Russians were defeated at Friedland, (1807). As yet he had never, touched Russian soil, the Russians were still, as unbeaten as the British, but now came an extraordinary piece of good fortune for Napoleon. By a mixture of boasting, subtlety, and flattery be won over the young and ambitious Tsar, Alexander I he was just thirty years old to form an alliance. The two emperors met on a raft in the middle of the Niemen at Tilst, and there came to an understanding.
This meeting was an occasion for sublime foolishness on the part of both the principle actors. Alexander had imbibed much liberalism during his education at the court of Catherine II, and was all for freedom, education, and the new order of the world subject to, his own pre-eminence. «’He would gladly have everyone free», said one of his early associates, «provided that everyone was prepared to do freely exactly what he wished». And he declared that he would have abolished serfdom if it had cost him his head-if only civilization had been more advanced. He made war against France, he said, because Napoleon was a tyrant, to free the French people. After Friedland he saw Napoleon in a different light. These two men met eleven days after that rout; Alexander no doubt in the state of explanatory exaltation natural to his type during a mood of change.
To Napoleon the meeting must have been extremely gratifying. This was his first meeting with an emperor upon terms of equality. Like all men of limited vision, this man was a snob to the bone, his continual solicitude for big titles shows as much, and here was a real emperor, a born emperor, taking his three-year-old dignities as equivalent to the authentic imperialism of Moscow. Two imaginations soared together upon the raft at Tilsit. «What is Europe?» said. Alexander. «We are Europe». They discussed the affairs of Prussia and Austria in that spirit, they divided Turkey in anticipation, they arranged for the conquest of India, and indeed of most of Asia, and that Russia should take Finland from the Swedes; and they disregarded the disagreeable fact that the greater part of the world’s surface is sea, and that on the seas the British fleets sailed now unchallenged. Close at hand was Poland, ready to rise up and become the passionate ally of France had Napoleon but willed it so. But he was blind to Poland. It was a day of visions without vision. Napoleon even then, it seems, concealed the daring thought that be might one day marry a Russian princess, a real princess. But that, he was to learn in 1810, was going a little too far.
After, Tilsit there was a perceptible deterioration in Napoleon’s quality; he became rasher, less patient of obstacles, more and more the fated master of the world, more and more intolerable to everyone he encountered.
In 1808 he committed a very serious blunder. Spain was his abject ally, completely under his control, but he saw fit, to depose its Bourbon king in order to promote his brother Joseph from the crown of the two Sicilies. Portugal he had already conquered and the two kingdoms of Spain and Portugal were to be united. Thereupon the Spanish arose in a state of patriotic fury, surrounded a French army at Baylen, and compelled it to surrender. It was an astonishing break in the French career of victory.
The British were not slow to seize the foothold this insurrection gave them. A British army under Sir Arthur Wellesley (afterwards the Duke of Wellington) landed in Portugal, defeated the French at Vimiero, and compelled them to retire into Spain. The news of these reverses caused a very great excitement in Germany and Austria, and the Tsar assumed a more arrogant attitude towards his ally.
There was another meeting of these two potentates at Erfurt, in which the Tsar was manifestly less amenable to the dazzling tactics of Napoleon than he had been. Followed four years of unstable «ascendancy» for France, while the outlines on the map of Europe waved about like garments on a clothesline on a windy day. Napoleon’s personal empire grew by frank annexations to include Holland, much of western Germany, much of Italy, and much of the, eastern Adriatic coast. But one by one the French colonies were falling to the British, and the British armies in the Spanish peninsula, with the Spanish auxiliaries, slowly pressed the French northward. All Europe was getting very weary of Napoleon and very indignant with him; his antagonists now were no longer merely monarchs and ministers, but whole peoples also. The Prussians, after the disaster of Jena in 1806, had set to work to put their house in order. Under the leadership of Freiherr von Stein they had swept aside their feudalism, abolished privilege and serfdom, organized popular education and popular patriotism, accomplished, in fact, without any internal struggle nearly everything that France had achieved, in 1789. By 1810 a new Prussia existed, the nucleus of a new Germany. And now Alexander, inspired it would seem by dreams of world ascendancy even crazier than his rivals, was posing again as the friend of liberty. In 1810 fresh friction was created by Alexander’s objection to Napoleon’s matrimonial ambitions. For he was now divorcing his old helper Josephine, because she was childless, in order to secure the «continuity» of his «dynasty». Napoleon, thwarted of a Russian princess, snubbed indeed by Alexander, turned to Austria, and married the arch-duchess Marie Louise. The Austrian statesmen read him aright. They were very ready to throw him their princess. By that marriage Napoleon was captured for the dynastic system; he might have been the maker of a new world, he preferred to be the son-in-law of the old.
In the next two years this adventurer’s affairs crumbled apace. Nobody believed in his pretensions any more. He was no, longer the leader and complement of the revolution; no longer the embodied spirit of a world reborn he was just a new and nastier sort of autocrat. He had, estranged all free-spirited men, and he had antagonized the church. Kings and Jacobins were, at one, when it came to, the question of his overthrow. Only base and self-seeking people supported him, because he seemed to have the secret of success. Britain was now his inveterate enemy, Spain was blazing with a spirit that surely a Corsican should have understood; it needed only a breach with Alexander I to set this empire of bluff and stage scenery swaying toward its downfall. The quarrel came. Alexander’s feelings for Napoleon had always been of a very mixed sort; he envied Napoleon as a rival, and despised him as an underbred upstart. Moreover, there was a kind of vague and sentimental greatness about Alexander; he was given to mystical religiosity, he had the conception of a mission for Russia and himself to bring peace to Europe and the world by destroying Napoleon. In that respect he had an imaginative greatness Napoleon lacked. But bringing peace to Europe seemed to him quite compatible with the annexation of Finland, most of Poland, and of great portions of the Turkish empire. This man’s mind moved in a luminous fog. And particularly he wanted to resume trading with Britain, against which Napoleon had set his face. For all the trade of Germany had been dislocated and the mercantile classes embittered by the Napoleonic «Continental System», which was to ruin Britain by excluding British goods from every country in Europe. Russia had suffered more even than Germany.
The breach came in 1811, when Alexander withdrew from the. «Continental System». In 1812 a great mass of armies, amounting altogether to 600,000 men, began to move towards Russia under the supreme command of the new emperor. About half this force was French; the rest was drawn from the French allies and subject peoples. It was a conglomerate army like the army of Darius or the army of Kavadh. The Spanish war was still going on; Napoleon made no attempt to end it. Altogether, it drained away a quarter of a million men from France. He fought his way across Poland and Russia to Moscow before the winter-for the most part the Russian armies declined battle and even before the winter closed in upon him his position became manifestly dangerous. He took Moscow, expecting that this would oblige Alexander to make peace. Alexander would not make peace, and Napoleon found himself in much the same position as Darius had been in 2,300 years before in South Russia. The Russians, still unconquered in a decisive battle, raided his communications, wasted his army-disease helped them; even before Napoleon reached Moscow 150,000 men had been lost. But he lacked the wisdom of Darius, and would not retreat. The winter remained mild for an unusually long time he could have escaped; but instead he remained in Moscow, making impossible plans, at a loss. He had been marvellously lucky in all his previous floundering; he had escaped undeservedly from Egypt, he had been saved from destruction in Britain by the British naval victories; but now he was in the net again, and this time he was not to escape. Perhaps be would have wintered in Moscow, but the Russians smoked him out; they set fire to and burnt most of the city.
It was late in October, too late altogether, before he decided to return. He made an ineffectual attempt – to break through to a fresh line of retreat to the south-west, and then turned the faces of the survivors of his Grand Army towards the country they had devastated in their advance. Immense distances separated them from any friendly territory. The winter was in no hurry. For a week the Grand Army struggled through mud; then came sharp frosts, and then the first flakes of snow, and then snow and snow …
Slowly, discipline dissolved. The hungry army spread it out in search of supplies until it broke up into mere bands of marauders. The peasants, if only in self-defense, rose against them, waylaid them, and murdered them; a cloud of light cavalry – Scythians – still hunted them down. That retreat is one of the great tragedies of history.
At last Napoleon and his staff and a handful of guards and attendants reappeared in Germany, bringing no army with him, followed only by straggling and demoralized bands. The Grand Army, retreating under Murat, reached Konigsberg in a disciplined state, but only about a thousand strong out of six hundred thousand. From Konigsberg Murat fell back to Posen. The Prussian contingent had surrendered to the Russians; the Austrians had gone homeward to the south. Everywhere scattered fugitives, ragged, lean, and frost-bitten, spread the news of the disaster.
Napoleon’s magic was nearly exhausted. He did not dare to stay with his troops in Germany; he fled post haste to Paris. He began to order new levies and gather fresh armies amidst the wreckage of his world empire. Austria turned against him (1813); all Europe was eager to rise against this defaulting trustee of freedom, this mere usurper. He had betrayed the new order; the old order he had saved and revived now destroyed him. Prussia rose, and the German «War of Liberation» began. Sweden joined his enemies. Later Holland revolted. Murat had rallied about 14,000 Frenchmen round his disciplined nucleus in Posen, and this force retreated through Germany, as a man might retreat who had Ventured into a cageful of drugged lions and found that the effects of the drug were evaporating. Napoleon, with fresh forces, took up the chief command in the spring, won a great battle at Dresden, and then for a time he seemed to have gone to pieces intellectually and morally. He became insanely irritable, with moods of inaction. He did little or nothing to follow up the Battle of Dresden. In September the «Battle of the Nations» was fought round and about Leipzig, after which the Saxons, who had hitherto followed his star, went over to the allies. The end of the year saw the French beaten back into France.
1814 was the closing campaign. France was invaded from the east and the south; Swedes, Germans, Austrians, Russians, crossed the Rhine; British and Spanish came through the Pyrenees. Once more Napoleon fought brilliantly, but now he fought ineffectually. The eastern armies did not go much defeat him as push past him, and Paris capitulated in March: A little later at Fontainebleau the emperor abdicated.
In Provence, on his way out of the country, his life was endangered by a royalist mob.
This was the natural and proper end of Napoleon’s career. So this raid of an intolerable egoist across the disordered beginnings of a new time should have closed. At last he was suppressed. And had there been any real wisdom in the conduct of human affairs, we should now have to tell of the concentration of human science and will upon the task his treachery and vanity had interrupted, the task of building up a world system of justice and free effort in the place of the bankrupt ancient order.
But we have to tell of nothing of the sort. Science and wisdom were conspicuously absent from the great council of the Allies. Came the vague humanitarianism and dreamy vanity of the Tsar Alexander, came the shaken Habsburgs of Austria, the resentful Hohenzollerns, of Prussia, the aristocratic traditions of Britain, still badly frightened by the revolution and its conscience all awry with stolen commons and sweated factory children. No peoples came to the Congress, but only monarchs and foreign ministers; and though you bray a foreign office in the bloodiest of war mortars, yet will its diplomatic habits not depart from it. The Congress had hardly assembled before the diplomatists set to work making secret bargains and treaties behind each other’s backs. Nothing could exceed the pompous triviality of the Congress, which gathered at Vienna after a magnificent ceremonial visit of the allied sovereigns to London. The social side of the Congress was very strong, pretty ladies abounded, there was a galaxy of stars and uniforms, endless dinners and balls, a mighty flow of bright anecdotes and sparkling wit. Whether the two million dead men upon the battlefields laughed at the jokes, admired the assemblies, and marveled at the diplomatists, is beyond our knowledge. It is to be hoped their poor wraiths got something out of the display. The brightest spirit of the gathering was a certain Talleyrand, one of Napoleon’s princes, a very brilliant; man indeed, who had been a pro-revolutionary cleric, who had proposed the revolutionary confiscation of the church estates, and who was now for bringing back the Bourbons.
The allies, after the fashion of Peace Congresses, frittered away precious time in more and more, rapacious disputes; the Bourbons returned to France. Back came all the remainder of the emigres with them, eager for restitution and revenge. One great egotism had been swept aside only to reveal a crowd of meaner egotists. The new king was the brother of Louis XVI; he had taken the title of Louis XVIII very eagerly so soon as he learnt that his little nephew (Louis XVII) was dead in the Temple. He was gouty and clumsy, not perhaps ill disposed, but the symbol of the ancient system; all that was new in France felt the heavy threat of reaction that came with him. This was no liberation, only a new tyranny, heavy and inglorious tyranny instead of an active and splendid one. Was there no hope for France but this? The Bourbons showed particular malice against the veterans of the Grand Army, and France was now full of returned prisoners of war, who found themselves under a, cloud. Napoleon had been packed off to a little consolation empire of his own, upon the island of Elba. He was still to be called Emperor and keep a certain state. The chivalry or whim of Alexander had insisted upon this treatment of his fallen rival. The Habsburgs, who had toadied to his success, had taken away his Habsburg empress she went willingly enough to Vienna, and he never saw her again.
After eleven months at Elba Napoleon judged that France had had enough of the Bourbons; he contrived to evade the British ships that watched his island, and reappeared at Cannes in France for his last gamble against fate. His progress to Paris was a triumphal procession; he walked on white Bourbon cockades. For a hundred days, «the Hundred Days», he was master of France again.
His return created a perplexing position for any honest Frenchman. On the one hand there was this adventurer who had betrayed the republic; on the other the dull weight of old kingship restored. The allies would not hear of any further experiments in republicanism; it was the Bourbons or Napoleon. Is it any wonder that on the whole France was with Napoleon? And he came back professing to be a changed man; there was to be no more despotism; he would respect the constitutional régime …
He gathered an army, he made some attempts at peace with the allies; when be found these efforts ineffectual, he struck swiftly at the British, Dutch, and Prussians in Belgium, hoping to defeat them before the Austrians and Russians could come up. He did very nearly manage this. He beat the Prussians at Ligny, but not; sufficiently; and then he was hopelessly defeated by the tenacity of the British under Wellington at Waterloo (1815), the Prussians, under Blucher, coming in on his right flank as the day wore on. Waterloo ended in a rout; it left Napoleon without support and without hope. France fell away from him again. Everyone who had joined him was eager now to attack him, and so efface that error. A provisional government in Paris ordered him to leave the country; was for giving him twenty-four hours to do it in.
He tried to get to America, but Rochefort, which he reached, was watched by British cruisers. France, now disillusioned and uncomfortably royalist again, was hot in pursuit of him. He went aboard a British frigate, the Bellerophon, asking to be received as a refugee, but being treated as a prisoner. He was taken to Plymouth, and from Plymouth straight to the lonely tropical island of St. Helena.
There he remained until his death from cancer in 1821, devoting himself chiefly to the preparation of his memoirs, which were designed to exhibit the chief events of his life in a misleading, and attractive light and to minimize his worst blunders. One or two of the men with him recorded his conversations and get down their impressions of him.
These works had a great vogue, in France and Europe. The Holy Alliance of the monarchs of Russia, Austria, and Prussia (to which other monarchs were invited to adhere) labored under the delusion that in defeating Napoleon they had defeated the Revolution, turned back the clock of fate, and restored Grand Monarchy on a sanctified basis for evermore. The cardinal document of the scheme of the Holy Alliance is said to have been drawn up under the inspiration of the Baroness von Krudener, who seems to have been a sort of spiritual director to the Russian emperor. It opened, «In the name of the Most Holy and Indivisible Trinity», and it bound the participating monarchs «regarding themselves towards their subjects and armies as fathers of families», and «considering each other as fellow-countrymen», to sustain each other protect true religion, and urge their subjects to strengthen and exercise themselves in Christian duties. Christ, it was declared, was the real king of all Christian peoples, a very Merovingian king, one may remark, with these reigning sovereigns as his mayors of the palace. The British king had no power to sign this document, the pope and the sultan were not asked; the rest of the European monarchs, including the king of France, adhered. But the king of Poland did not sign because there was no king in Poland; Alexander, in a mood of pious abstraction, was sitting on the greater part of Poland. The Holy Alliance never became an actual legal alliance of states; it gave place to it real league of nations, the Concert of Europe, which France joined in 1818, and from which Britain withdrew in 1822.
There followed a period of peace and dull oppression in Europe over which Alexander brooded in attitudes of orthodoxy, piety, and unquenchable self-satisfaction many people in those hopeless days were disposed to regard even Napoleon with charity, and to accept his claim that in some inexplicable way he had, in asserting himself, been asserting the revolution and France. A cult of him as of something mystically heroic grew up after his death.